Former Minister of Tourism, Patrick Delatour, speaks on the developments, challenges, and solutions of Haiti's tourism sector

  • Posted by Marina Vatav
  • November 6, 2013 3:58 PM EST
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What is your opinion on how Haiti's tourism sector is progressing right now? Do you think it's heading in the right direction?

Yes, I believe that it is heading in the right direction. In this phase of tourism development in Haiti we are in fact implementing the master plan that was coordinated and designed as early as 1996 when I was the Minister of Tourism. It was known as the physical plan of the country. We had identified 4 regions of immediate importance, and as I look at what the current government is doing, they are in fact implementing the plan.

Certain regions that had to become a priority any way due to the fact that there has been international investment have become that, and some of the infrastructure that were proposed as early as 1996 have been built or are in the process of being built. As an example, I'm thinking of the North. In the North right now we have the road that links the Dominican Republic to Cap-Haitien. That means that in about 45 minutes the Citadelle has access to one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean right now, which is the North of the Dominican Republic.

Second, we have an international Airport that is being built, at least the road was done, so we are able to receive major planes.

Third, the most important thing is that Royal Caribbean has made an investment of close to 60 million dollars in the construction of a terminal for the biggest boat in the Caribbean today, which means that we are shooting for close to 1 million visitors in Labadee. In addition, Royal Caribbean has agreed that it would be to their interest to offer [tours] to Northern destinations to the visitors of Labadee, including visits to the historic center of Cap-Haitien and of the National Historic Park where the Citadelle is.

The second destination that we had proposed very early on, and that has the condition to become a regional destination in regard to the relationship with the Dominical Republic and Jamaica, happens to be Jacmel. The government is making a serious financial effort to turn the historic city into a destination. The airport has been opened and running since the previous government, and the historic city is on its way to being restored. Some buildings are getting some intervention, whether it is the mayor’s office in the central part or the old colonial jail that today is becoming a museum. The waterfront is also being developed.

There is, if I am not mistaken, an introduction of a conference center, and there are plans to introduce maybe two hotels that will permit historic center of Jacmel to benefit from about 200-230 new hotel rooms.

That being said, the third area that is being developed — and this seems to be their [Haitian government] priority, and this was also introduced in the master plan — is the South with an international airport in Les Cayes and some business development that has happened in the area. And right now it seems that they have a major project called Ile-a-Vache.

Were there some new programs that the current ministry of tourism is developing that were not part of the older strategy?

None whatsoever. You see, there are two missions in the ministry of tourism. One of them is the development of the product, and as an architect this is what I concentrated on, and the other is the promotion of the product. I think this government's forte is in the promotion of a new image for Haiti. It is a young generation that is in power. They are very savvy in terms of technology and computer-related means of communication and social media, and they are doing a good job at promoting a new image for Haiti. But of course one always has the question of what precedes the other: is it the egg or the chicken? At the end of the day I believe it is a good effort to try to promote the image of Haiti, but one has to be careful that the general habits of the country—in our way of dealing with politics and political situation—do not arrive at some level of political instability, which is usually what the international press is looking for. And those kinds of events might have a negative impact on the image that we are trying to build. 

On the other hand, they are coming up with a concept where they are trying to promote the image of what Haiti's future could be. In that sense they don't need to talk about the product. The essence of the promotional campaign should arrive at inviting the international community, private sector mostly, to come and invest into the development of the tourism product that has been identified in the master plan. 

We see development of hotels, new airlines flying to Haiti, and trainings for staff. Is this enough to make tourists want to visit the country?

In French we like to say, “Il n’y a pas de solution de continuité dans les affaires de l’Etat”. Meaning there is never any instant coffee kind of solution. It's a long process. The development of tourism in Haiti goes as far back as 1972 when the Organization of American States (OAS) made a study on the Caribbean stating that tourism will become the biggest economic sector of the region. In fact, that's what we are seeing. One of the ingredients that the tourism sector consumes is stability, because one should not forget that one invests his own vacation time into a destination and he wants some peaceful environment, some agreeable environment, and he wants to be able to have access to a cultural product that might make a difference in his living. 

Now, as long as we are still perceived as a country that has some political issues in the sense that we have not arrived at a temple whereby elections happen at the time that they are supposed to happen, the transfer of power is peaceful between opposing factors, and that policies that have been designed with the help of the international community for long-term business are not being disturbed by “political decisions”, as long as those conditions do not exist, it is going to be very difficult to assume that there will be an upsurge of visitors to the country. For example, hotels that are being open right now have been in the making for at least the past 5 years, the airlines that are coming in have been in the negotiations for the past 45 years. It will take that long to have interested parties in the private sector to come in and decide to invest multimillion dollars into developing the Haitian tourism product.

What have been some of the main challenges that your team faced and are they still the same for the current ministry of tourism?

There is a need for a general policy of development. When I was in the government, one of the priorities for the Haitian government at the time was the development of highways and roads to connect multiple parts of the country. Obviously the idea was that we were trying to get agricultural products that are being produced in different parts of the country to arrive at some kind of market. 

Of course, the tourism sector was one of the first beneficiaries of that infrastructure, whether it is the national and international airport, the national highway, or the port, the tourism sector will definitely benefit. 

The major problem has always been that the general perception of the world of Haiti is left to the way we conduct our political business. And this is one of the things that we've been trying to work on. This government benefitted from the efforts that were made by the preceding government in establishing a kind of a fiscal environment where one could disagree without being disagreeable. However, that implies also that the political process continues to go on and that elections should happen. This to me is going to be the major problem that the current government will also face because you do have to convince potential investors that you are able to offer to them an environment of stability for the next 25 years. This is exactly the time that would be needed for the investor to recuperate his money and see the benefits of the investment. That has to be fundamental in solving the long-term problems.

You have mentioned that the political instability and the perception of the world as challenges in attracting tourists. What do you think can or should be done to solve these issues, or find other means to develop this sector?

The question has always been that one needs to have some major destinations that will help change the perception. One should not forget that in the 1970s when Jamaica had political problems and change of government, Jamaica as a destination went down. What the Jamaican government did, which was interesting, was to develop particular local products and promoted those destinations, whether it was Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, or Negril. From the success of those destinations, they later came with the concept of “Welcome Back to Jamaica”. 

So, it’s exactly the same thing we are proposing and I believe that is being implemented. When we can turn the National Historic Park Citadelle, Sans Souci, Ramiers, into a major International destination as we have done with Labadie, and turn Jacmel or Ile-a-Vache into some kinds of secluded and secure destination, is when one can turn around and talk about “Welcoming Back to Haiti”. Haiti is going to be for the foreseeable future a very difficult product to sell on the international market.

How long do you think it might take for the country to be a tourism hotspot? It has a great location geographically, and it has a lot to offer, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

I believe that one of the key solutions to solving Haiti’s problem is a greater involvement of the Haitian Diaspora into the decision making process in Haiti, and most importantly into the investment of certain infrastructure, whether it is in local hotels, restaurants, or whatever little project that they might have. Because the Haitian Diaspora has the know-how, has been involved into more democratic and ongoing society, and has developed reflexes that are closer to what is expected by the international community. However, until the Haitian Diaspora feels at ease, and most importantly feels welcomed back home and appreciated for whatever effort they will bring into the fold—of course this has to be done in a respectful way of Haitian ways and means and in complete respect for the Haitian culture—but until we have that particular partnership going full blast, I really do not believe that the international community is going to be the only factor that will help with the development of tourism in Haiti.

What is your opinion of the strategy the Ministry of Planning has presented for Ile-a-Vache? Do you think this is a good direction?

Very early the Haitian government had received fillers from international companies or international operations interested in investing into some regions of, or places in, Haiti.

In most cases what is being required as a pre-condition for their involvement is to make their investment into some kind of secured local environment. So the idea of turning an island, which has natural border, as a destination is a good idea.

The whole notion of, for example, having an international airport to draw tourism is not enough. People have a tendency to forget that what makes an international airport is not the runway, but more the capacity of the airport to receive international flights, and customs and immigration officers to run the show. That is a good idea.

If we are talking about the role of the Haitian government in investing government money into some of the infrastructure, that used to be the system applied in the 70s, where governments were asked by the international community to partner with the World Bank and international institutions to finance for example a destination. That's the way Puerto Plata in the Dominican Repulic was defined and designed in the 1970s. But in the 1980s, the private sector took upon itself to invest into physical infrastructure. For example, this is what is happening with Punta Cana where the Dominican government is not necessarily a financial partner. The Dominican government has to provide, for example, access to the land, access to some basic services such as security, hospital, etc. The same thing would have happened in Ile-a-Vache. My understanding, because I have not followed in detail the development of the plan, is that the Haitian government is about to make some investment into basic infrastructure such as roads, and possibly an airport as a way to facilitate access to international communities to come invest into hotels and other services that are proper to the tourism industry.

What are you up to now?

I have gone back to my first love, which is architecture and historic preservation. My office is open. I have some clients, and I have some activities that I'm rendering. I'm doing some construction, some restorations, and I'm still very much interested in what happens in the historic environment of the country, whether it is the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, the preservation of the historic cities of Jacmel and Cap-Haitien, or the preservation of the Palace of Sans Souci and of the Citadelle. I'm very much into those kinds of activities. I have also received offers to go into academia. Some universities have asked me to at least take the time to write on my experience of historic preservation and nation building, follow that with the problems caused by the earthquake and all those natural phenomenon that have the tendency to destroy Haiti's physical environment.

The office, is this your own business?

Yes. I opened an office as early as 1978-1979, and had continuously maintained relationships with Howard University, Columbia university, and Haitian universities to pursue academic endeavor, whether it's in the form of scholarships or, most importantly, teaching facilities. So yes, my office is going very strongly. I am also a partner in a construction firm that I went back to, the same one that I had to disinvest from when I was the Minister of Tourism so there would not be any conflict of interest. Right now I am back in the fold and we are participating in the reconstruction of Haiti.

Since you've been involved in the public as well as the private sector, how do you see the best collaboration between the public and private sectors in the tourism industry?

It is interesting that the current minister of tourism comes from the private sector and comes from the association of tourism. That confirms that the partnership between the public and private sectors in the tourism environment has to be strong and must remain strong. The second aspect to the question is that the tourism industry, of course, consumes a lot of the professional services, whether it is in architecture, engineering, or others. And even when the international community comes in the tourism market, somewhere along the line, it has to give identity to the product. For example, as new hotels open like the Oasis or Best Western, they have to introduce Haitian artifacts, arts and crafts to lend to the general identity of the country, which is what’s happening.

 

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Patrick Delatour served as the Minister of Tourism of Haiti between 2006 and 2011. He was the coordinator of a group of national and international professionals who designed the master plan for tourism development in 1996 under the leadership of Mrs. Maryse Penette, Secretary of State of Tourism at the time. In 2006, he adapted the tourism master plan as part of the "Le Plan D'amenagement du Territoire", known as the physical master plan of the country.

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